Cleaning Up The World from the Inside
“….Pollution! Look at this rubbish!” he said vehemently, “Bloody vandals! Chucking their garbage about!…”
I had been wandering along a path, savoring the clear afternoon stillness of a popular national park near Melbourne, when this man and his family steamed up behind and overtook me. He was a large man with a face so swollen and red that his head looked like it was going to burst. As I stepped aside to allow room to pass, his wife gave me an apologetic look as she and her two embarrassed children filed by, and they all disappeared around the bend up ahead.
As his angry tones slowly receded into the distance, and the silence of the bush reasserted itself, I wondered which pollution was worse – the small scraps of paper by the path, or this man’s obnoxious rage in the delicate ambience of this beautiful place. And then it occurred to me that the two were actually both parts of the one. This man’s rage was interconnected with the very pollution he was railing against.
I find it interesting that, for most of us, though all through our life we have been conditioned to keep ourselves physically clean, dressed neatly, with our houses neat and tidy, we have never been taught to keep a clean and tidy mind. We have never been taught ‘best practice’ habits with the way we use and apply our mental and emotional functions – our thoughts, emotions and intentions. We have simply been encouraged to cram ourselves full of information, endure our emotional shifts as best we can, and forget the rest by distracting ourselves.
Slowly, as we age, because we are always thinking about things, remembering, reacting, daydreaming, worrying, the mind learns that, except for sleeping, it is not allowed to stop. So the mind becomes like a hand that never stops moving – even in rest, it still twitches and moves in our lap. This build-up of unresolved thought patterns becomes more intense, causing hormonal effects in the body that become more uncomfortable as life goes on. We ache more, worry more, get more anxious over more insignificant things, get tired or depressed more, and feel less – our minds and bodies slowly tie themselves in knots as the buildup of unresolved mental stuff increases. The ‘grey’ emotional states begin to cover us up – depression, apathy, anxiety and boredom.
On the radio this morning I heard that depression is now considered by the medical fraternity to be one of the most serious health problems in Australia, and no doubt, it has similar status in the rest of the world as well
Our common reaction to our mental malaise is to find more things to help us forget our internally generated discomfort. And because we have been conditioned to find solace and comfort through consumption, we fill our attention with eating and drinking, more comforts, work, hobbies and distractions, and entertainment – anything to forget how we feel.
All of these things that we use to forget create excess physical waste of some kind in the world, or they consume some resource faster than can be sustained.
Environmental pollution is, in the larger part, the physical overflow of our own rapacious and excessive needs. From candy wraps, pizza and hamburger boxes, to our excessive use of fossil fuels and energy, we consume constantly and voraciously, in part, because we need to. Because we are needful, depressed, worried, angry or anxious, or merely awash with the mental detritus of our incredibly cluttered lives, we have a tendency to over-consume, and to forget the repercussions of our consumption.
While on a visit to America a while ago, I watched a current affairs program on local television one night in which they did a hidden camera trick on people who dropped litter, then interviewed them to find out why. I was interested to see that most didn’t even notice that they had dropped the litter. They had not been aware of what they had done and, when shown the replay of their action, they were genuinely embarrassed. Many of them made the excuse, “…well, I was thinking about something else…”
We are often ‘thinking about something else’ – in fact, ‘thinking about something else’ seems to have become a dominant characteristic of the Western mind. We drive while thinking about something else – we eat, drink, speak, work, even make love while thinking about something else.
And because we are often thinking about something else, we are not aware of, or we forget the causal effects of what we do. We forget that the plastic bags we throw away often end up strangling our waterways, or that the impatience, anger, and rudeness that some of us vent so freely on others around us has a profoundly disturbing effect on the world around us. We forget because we are often preoccupied with something else.
And what is this ‘something else’ we are thinking about?
Usually the thinking is trivial – pointless reiterations of some compulsive preoccupation – thoughts growing like bacteria. If we are worrying, it is a kind of mental loop of thoughts, replaying itself, and taking our attention, making us unaware of what is happening in the moment.
But though we expend a lot of energy on this compulsive thinking, we never work anything out or take action – the thoughts just exist because the mind cannot let go or stop creating new thoughts. In effect, the ‘something else’ we are often thinking about is a form of mental smoke from fires that we cannot put out – pollution – mental pollution.
When I work as a meditation trainer, one of the most difficult challenges of my work is encouraging people to give themselves permission to stop for a while each day – to let go of their life for while – to just sit still, and be happy to just be still.
From the moment of birth, most of us, particularly in the West, have been encouraged to spend their waking hours exclusively in physical and mental activity – to always be doing something – thinking, learning, achieving, creating. As a result, when it comes to periodic rest, or meditation, most people feel anxiety when they are not doing something. The only way they can give themselves permission to stop is to be either exhausted or sick – and, as I remind them, by then it’s too late. They should have stopped long before then. Rest is something we do to conserve ourselves, and enhance our enjoyment of living – it is not a last resort.
We have been taught to think with great sophistication and speed about a great range of things, but we have never been taught how to stop. We have never been taught how to relax efficiently, and let go. We have never been taught the mental skills that are required to give the mind some peace and quiet in which to clear itself – to do its own ‘house cleaning’.
In sleep and rest, and especially in meditation, this fundamental process of mental ‘house cleaning’ takes place. It happens naturally whenever the mind is released from the incessant focusing and making of thoughts that we associate with wakefulness.
Consider all those times when the mind is disengaged, and relaxed, like when you have lain back on the couch and closed your eyes for a few minutes, or been mesmerized by the sound of the waves on a beach – all the thoughts, feelings, and memories all flit past the awareness, like so many newly released butterflies flitting through a ray of light. This is the mind downloading excessive and unfinished concerns – clearing itself.
As the mind clears itself, so too does the body. Released from new mental commands, the body uses the space to download excess hormones through the kidneys. When you open your eyes, you feel just a little clearer, and energized. The body is more relaxed and free of stress. The more we can allow the mind and body to do this kind of clearing, the less we need to forget, or distract ourselves, because we feel better within ourselves
So, some suggestions for lessening mental pollution:
Once a day, sit back in your chair, and give yourself permission to take a short cat-nap – even ten minutes is of great benefit. A client of mine, a very successful Information Technology consultant, used to keep a comfortable chair in her office. Whenever she had an urgent problem she had to solve, rather than try to think it out, she used to curl up in her comfortable chair, and take a short nap of between 20 minutes to an hour. She usually found that the solution would usually appear quite quickly after she had rested in this manner.
Try to move at a slower pace throughout your day – never allow events to push you into panic. Take one thing after another, giving each your full attention. The mind gets confused if we try to do two things at once. As my teacher, an 85 year old Thai monk used to say, ‘Don’t rush. Just move faster, with more care, and more awareness’.
Even if you don’t want to learn how to meditate, there is a simple relaxation technique you can do which will help to clear the mind and body – try it before you begin your day, and again before you sleep at night: Sit in a comfortable chair, or lie on your back for about ten minutes, and purposefully keep directing your attention to the feelings in your body.
Bring your attention down into your body. Feel the sensations of being alive – let the body speak to you and tell you how it feels in its own language. And whenever you find yourself thinking, go back to the nearest sensation. Just be aware of how you feel. Contemplate in particular, the feelings in your face, neck, scalp, shoulders and around your eyes.
And where you feel tightness, see if you can let the tightness go – it’s a game – just contemplate the tight muscles in that area, no matter how small they are, and let them relax, loosen, let go.
And when you find yourself back in thinking, that’s okay, just find the nearest sensation, or feeling of tension, and encourage that part of your body to relax.
Try to get into the habit of periodically checking your body and your breathing throughout the day. If you find tension anywhere, then let it loosen.
Allow yourself space throughout the day, in small sips, to look around you, and reconnect with how you feel – take a deep breath, stretch, let the rational streams of thinking go, relax your muscles, feel the air and the wind on your face.
Ideally it is meditation, or one of the physical yoga’s that form the most effective modalities for creating real change in your internal ecology. They clear the buildup of excessive thinking and bring you back into touch with the needs of your body.
The more space you make in the mind, and the more you pay attention to how you feel, the more your life begins to breathe, and the less you need to make you happy. You become more patient, more able to feel empathy with others. Simple things begin to glow – a sunset, the smile on a child’s face. And if each of us clears and takes care of our internal environment, I’m sure that our world will clear too.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)